Responsible Consumption
at Home and with Family

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

The home has long been a symbol of the American dream – work hard and save your pennies until you can afford a home in a neighborhood where your family can establish its roots. Ironically, the home now also provides some of the clearest evidence of the ‘more is better’ corruption of the American dream. Over the last half-century, the size of the average American home has nearly doubled.(1) The amount of ‘stuff’ in those homes has increased even more, overflowing first into 2/3/4 car garages and then into personal storage rentals (one of the fastest growing industries in the '90’s). From a simple environmental standpoint, our ecological support systems can neither sustain the necessary level of resource extraction nor absorb the resulting waste.(2)

And Mother Earth isn’t the only one feeling the strain. At the individual level, the endless pursuit of more is stressing out American families. We work and commute longer hours in order to afford those big houses in the ‘burbs, thus leaving less time to spend in those houses and less time to put all those possessions to use.(3) Worse yet, we have less time for the things we say are most important – our kids, family, friends, and hobbies. Many of us still find ourselves running from job to highway to store, then briefly home before leaving for the job again -- like mice stocking up for the winter.

Fortunately, there is another way and more and more Americans are finding it. Millions have downshifted - voluntarily reduced their work hours in order to spend more time with their families and interests. Studies show that 87% of those downshifters are happy with the change.(4) Others have joined campaigns to shield their families from hypercommercialism.(5) Some have cut material and resource consumption through a variety of advocacy and technological strategies – everything from removing their names from junkmail lists to installing compact fluorescent lightbulbs and super efficient insulation.(6) Thousands of other Americans have followed these paths throughout the home and beyond, connecting with simplicity study groups and sustainable community initiatives.(7)

The home
Not sure where to start? Let’s tackle the biggie right off the bat – choosing the right home. After all, residential construction comprises the second biggest chunk of our ecological footprint (right after transportation) –accounting for roughly a quarter of consumers’ impact on wildlife and natural ecosystems.(8) If you’re in the market for a new home, consider:

  • SIZE – Do I really need a 2000 square foot home with 2.5 baths and a guestroom? Or could guests get by in the kids’ room or on a pullout couch in the living room? )
  • LOCATION -- Does this home contribute to sprawl? Is there a sense of community? Will I be car-dependent here?
  • EFFICIENCY and INNOVATION – Have I considered what resources will go into building my house and what will be necessary to sustain it throughout its life? Have I considered all my options? Solar panels? Top insulation? Co-housing? Straw bale construction or other forms of eco-design? Retrofitting an old house?

Not moving anytime soon? You can always take steps to make your current dwelling more efficient and clutter-free. And let’s not forget the basics – the "3 R’s." Instead of mumbling the now-cliched "reduce, reuse, and recycle," we can really think about them carefully… and in the proper order! "Reduce" and "Reuse" were meant to be the primary guiding principles; "Recycle" merely a last resort when the first two aren’t possible.(9)

Stuff coming into the home
The Center for a New American Dream is certainly not against all consumption. After all, while we don’t live to consume, we must consume to live. So after we’ve cut out waste and types of consumption that don’t add to our quality of life, we still have to buy ‘stuff.’ A good rule of thumb might be to critically approaching every purchase with a few questions: "Do I really need it? Can I get by without it? Could I borrow or rent it? Are its environmental and social impacts minimal (or positive!)? Is it worth the hours of my life I labored to earn this amount of money?"(10) If you’re satisfied with your answers, you can take pride in making a smart purchase.

You can also consider each of your dollars to be a vote. By voting for locally made, recycled, and efficient products, you can help "elect" a more just and health world.

Stuff that isn’t ‘stuff’ – vacation, family, and fun
Consumption isn’t just about what’s in your closets and basement. Indeed, transportation and buildings account for the majority of our ecological impact. As a result, vacations can be high-consumption propositions. As with all forms of consumption, we can consider the environmental, social, and human costs of our actions and then make choices that maximize our quality of life while minimizing those costs. When possible, we can opt for rail travel instead of air. We can temper the frequency of long-distance vacations by spending longer periods of time in each destination. And we can all make time to learn and love the treasures in our own backyards, parks, and communities. This will maximize our quality of life – and our wallets and the environment will thank us too. After all, as the Kids and Commercialism and Simplify the Holidays campaigns frequently remind us, what we really want is ‘More Fun, Less Stuff!’(11)

Interested in less glamorous travel? You know, the non-vacation kind? Then continue on to the puzzle tour’s Sustainable Transportation/Urban Design piece.


  1. "All-Consuming Passion" by New Road Map Foundation and Northwest Environment Watch, 1998.
  2. In "National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept" in the June, 1999 issue of Ecological Economics, Wackernagel etal. estimate the resources and absorptive capacities of four additional planets would be needed for everyone on earth to live the lifestyle of the average American. See the Consumption and the Global Environment piece for more on this topic.
  3. Check out the Work and/or Sustainable Transportation/Urban Design puzzle pieces.
  4. See the Work piece for tips and resources.
  5. See the Kids and Commercialism campaign page and its free "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture" brochure
  6. To escape junkmail, check out our anti-junkmail actions. For more information on CFLs, see Step by Step No.1. For other efficiency tips and resources, check out the Technology/Efficiency puzzle piece.
  7. For an overview of 7 educational programs that can be used by individuals or small groups, see Easy Does It! The Community puzzle piece should also be of interest.
  8. The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices by Michael Brower and Warren Leon (Three Rivers Press, 1999)
  9. The Tightwad Gazette books by Amy Dacyczyn contain hundreds of reuse ideas.
  10. Calculating your "real hourly wage" is an exercise detailed in Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Check this excellent book out of your library, read about it in Easy Does It!, or visit the Money/Personal Finance puzzle piece.
  11. Visit our Kids and Commercialism campaign page, Simplify the Holidays campaign page, or, if you like our motto, help us spread goodwill with the "More Fun, Less Stuff" starter kit.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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